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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 13:31 GMT
Albania mourns smuggling victims
Tirana
Flowers were laid outside the government building in Tirana
Albania is holding a national day of mourning after at least 20 people died of exposure in an accident at sea while trying to reach Italy illegally.

The tragedy occurred when the powerboat in which they were being smuggled across the Adriatic Sea broke down.

Two survivors, who were steering the boat, and three local officials, including the head of border police in the port of Vlore have been arrested.

President Alfred Moisiu has vowed to hunt down the people smugglers.

The Albanian government has also voted to help the relatives of the victims and undertook to pay funeral expenses.

Missing

The victims, 17 men and three women, either drowned or died of exposure in freezing temperatures after the boat's motor failed in stormy seas on Friday night.

I asked people to stay on their feet and rubbed them because they were freezing... but they lost their senses and died
Avni Cakaj, survivor
The Italian navy rescued 11 survivors on Saturday after search efforts were delayed overnight by bad weather.

Survivor Avni Cakaj said: "I asked people to stay on their feet and rubbed them because they were freezing... but they lost their senses and died."

Searches continued on Monday as one person from the boat was still unaccounted for and relatives have reported up to 15 people missing in what may have been another boat.

Albanian interior ministry spokesman, Florian Seriani, said he had no information about a second boat.

"We do not have information about a second rubber boat that may have sunk but we continue the search," he said.

Smuggling racket

On Monday, flags were flown at half-mast and hundreds of people gathered in front of the government building in the capital, Tirana, lighting candles and laying flowers.

A group of young people from a group called "Enough" draped a black ribbon over the doors of the government building in protest.

The people responsible for this tragedy will be charged and convicted of premeditated murder
Namik Dokle
Deputy Prime Minister
"The indifference and irresponsibility of the government are to blame for the death of the victims in the Adriatic Sea," said Erion Velia, one of the protesters.

Opposition leader Sali Berisha has called for an emergency session of parliamentary to discuss the tragedy and efforts to uncover who was responsible for it, their links with the state and the arrest of senior police officials.

Officials arrested by police include Vlore's deputy port director Gjergji Robaj, brother of one of the dinghy's owners, according to French news agency AFP.

Police also arrested the two men manning the boat, Artur Rrokaj and Albert Alliu, along with two police officers from the nearby town of Dhermiu.

'Murder'

AFP said the prosecutor's office had also opened investigations into Bardhyl Rrokaj, head of the anti-terrorist unit in the northern city of Shkodra, where most of the victims lived, and Ilir Rookaj, head of the Vlora traffic police.

Deputy Prime Minister Namik Dokle said: "The people responsible for this tragedy will be charged and convicted of premeditated murder."

The victims had each paid more than 2,000 euros to the smugglers for the sea passage, which in a fast boat takes only three hours.

The Italians say the number of illegal immigrants arriving from Albania has decreased considerably since their navy has been patrolling the Albanian coast to intercept people-smugglers.




SEE ALSO:
Albania mourns smuggled migrants
11 Jan 04  |  Europe
Crackdown on human traffickers
04 Feb 01  |  Europe
Country profile: Albania
30 Sep 03  |  Country profiles


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